Caring for culture in tangible ways

'The Poet' by Nathaniel Mokgosi is being showcased at 'A Black Aesthetic: A View of South African artists (1970-1990)'. During a walkabout Dr Same Mdluli noted that the preservation and maintenance of artworks is an overlooked field.

'The Poet' by Nathaniel Mokgosi is being showcased at 'A Black Aesthetic: A View of South African artists (1970-1990)'. During a walkabout Dr Same Mdluli noted that the preservation and maintenance of artworks is an overlooked field.

At a recent walkabout of A Black Aesthetic: A view of South African artists from 1970-1990, curator and gallery manager, Dr Same Mdluli talked audiences through a history of Black Modernist art. She also explained that an important, but overlooked, part of this history is the preservation and maintenance of the artworks.

It was this part of the talk that stayed with me after I left the exhibition. When I was little, I remember my grandfather finding odd bits of wood and metal to make frames for people who wanted a beloved piece of art (Princess Diana and Lord Shiva featured strongly) reframed.
He’d spend afternoons in the yard sorting through metal tacks and wood offcuts to find the perfect way to revive images. I was fascinated by his care for these objects, and that love of restoring old things passed on to me.

Mdluli said to Londiwe Dlomo from Sowetan: “I think there is a narrowness that is kind of being preached at institutions, that yes, you study fine arts so you’re going to be a fine artist. The one thing that this exhibition has highlighted is around conservation and restoration, which is a whole other career.”

When speaking to Mail & Guardian, Mdluli explained that some works from the University of Fort Hare’s archive needed to be re-framed, and although the collection was maintained to the highest standards, the work of conservation is such that it requires preventative maintenance. Mdluli also noted that there were some ceramic works in the university’s collection that were too fragile to transport from East London to Johannesburg and so couldn’t be in the exhibition.

“[But] I must emphasise how well kept this collection is and how the people that look after it understand its value and importance as a national treasure. However, conservation work (and archiving) is a consistent activity that requires constant discipline and attention. This is of course guided and determined by several factors including infrastructural, administrative, economic, and most importantly environmental,” she said.

After watching some mesmeric fine art restoration videos on Youtube (check out Baumgartner Restoration, or Tate Modern’s channel) I was intrigued by the intricate re-touching that restorer’s do, the cathartic process of seeing decades of grime, smoke and yellowing varnish fade away during the cleaning process, and how frames are delicately brought up to scratch.


Heritage science, conservation and restoration (which includes fine art restoration) functions a bit like the back-end of a newspaper. Before we see a journalist’s by-line those words have been scrutinised by a subeditor, a proof-reader, a section editor, a revise editor, photographers and more. Countless eyes and minds have gone into the ‘finished product’, each person bringing their own expertise to remedy any number of issues.

The conservation landscape comprises of a range of disciplines, mediums and methods. There are many sub-divisions within this umbrella – one can work with oil on canvas, on paper, with murals, ceramics, rock art, museum exhibits, manuscripts and more. Within gallery, art collection and museum spaces, conservators and restorers ensure that there are objects for us to look at, and what condition those objects are in. They facilitate the interactions, the bonds and the feelings we have towards objects of cultural, aesthetic and historical importance.

So, when laser and x-ray technologies are applied to a painting and finds a hidden figure underneath the paint layer visible to the eye - that’s conservation in practise. This actually happened in 2011 at the South African National Gallery (Sana), when a face was found in Charles Hazelwood Shannon’s The Morning Toilet, through x-radiography techniques. Another development from Sana’s conservation and restoration department was finding a lost Hebrew inscription under a Rembrandt portrait, also through carrying out x-rays on the work.

“My favourite part is seeing an artwork that’s been covered in old varnish and dirt come back to life. Removing the acidity from a discoloured work on paper seeing the work brighten and removing yellowed varnish from a painting seeing the true original colours underneath is a great feeling,” said Ernest Bellingan Scott, a Jo’burg-based private art restorer.

In South Africa, the work of carrying artistic objects from one generation to the next falls on a small pool of private and public conservators and restorers, a fact Mdluli alluded to in the walkabout. Bellingan Scott has over twenty year’s experience in the field of fine art restoration and conservation, and has studied in the United Kingdom and North America.

Isabelle McGinn, museum conservator and academic at the University of Pretoria (UP), noted in her paper Conservation Conversations: Moving towards training for Tangible Heritage Conservation at the University of Pretoria, that “the state of conservation in South African museums and other heritage repositories are in a state of crisis, which can partly be ascribed to a lack of professionally trained conservators, and a lack of university qualifications in the field of conservation.”

Tracing the history of schools and educational institutions that offered conservation science and heritage restoration programmes or degrees, McGinn explained in her paper that majority of conservation education training available is through short courses which varies in technical skill. However, according to McGinn, longer term qualifications are often “construed as inefficient, being too costly for little visible returns” by both government bodies who provide funding, and education institutions themselves.

In the 1990s the South African Museums Association facilitated a School of Conservation, which focussed mostly on museology [museum works], but the school was shut-down in 2000 due to lack of teaching resources and funds. Stepping into the vacuum of technical and long-term conservation training is the South African Institute for Heritage Science and Conservation (SAIHSC).

They have offered an accredited postgraduate conservation course called Technical Conservation Studies since 2018, which is one of the first practical, science-led conservation qualifications not housed under humanities. When speaking to the Institute, they noted that their post-graduate students work closely with faculty specialists in fields including paper, metals, ceramics, and stone conservation. Their first class due to graduate this year consists of five students.

“This is a programme of exceptional complexity, requiring a high degree of commitment and academic rigour from the candidate and faculty staff alike. Applicants are assessed based on their academic performance, in addition to technical tests measuring dexterity, natural curiosity and aptitude for puzzle solving,” the Institute said.

UP has recently started a MA in Tangible Heritage Conservation and many universities offer degrees and diplomas in museum science, curatorship and related disciplines. Alongside university conservation training, McGinn pointed to the ways in which conservation has been happening in Africa for centuries – whether one looks at the conservation of rock art in Southern Africa or the Sankore mosque in Timbuktu. However, in South Africa, indigenous knowledge about conservation efforts haven’t been recorded to the extent that is necessary for young conservators and students to draw on in their work and research.

“There is a wealth of African knowledge and know-how in terms of both the manufacture and care of artefacts, knowledge that is for the most part undocumented. Traditional methods of materials care have proven their efficacy for preserving heritage in Africa, which has a different context and different challenges to those of the northern hemisphere,” McGinn notes in her paper.

Bellingan Scott’s experiences support this idea, as he notes that due to a hotter climate, the degradation of cultural objects is different to that in Europe, and that, for example, “we have far more creatures and insects to deal with,” which influences conservation methods.

South Africa has an overwhelming amount of cultural objects and art – from some of the oldest in the world in caves and on rocks, to contemporary work by people like Gladys Mgudlandlu or Dumile Feni. We live in a culturally rich space but it’s strange that we aren’t taking care of it in the ways it deserves. However, it’s promising that we’re making moves to educate more people in conservation, so that art and heritage works will continue to inspire.

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